Going Where We Need Them: Flexible Hybrid Electronics Increase Monitoring and Control

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Wearable tech is the new black. Boosted by flexible hybrid electronics (FHEs), the trend of connecting bodies to the internet and apps has arrived in a big way. However, the technology’s usefulness goes beyond smart watches and UV skin patches. New innovative tools are being designed for industrial applications. They can connect individuals and hard-to-reach places with industrial facility infrastructure and automation processes.

What are Flexible Hybrid Electronics?

Flexible hybrid electronics (FHE) are electronic devices that use flexible substrates and hybrid component placement in their board design. They are low-cost, interface with advanced component printers more easily and conform to the shape of where they are placed.

The “flexible” refers to a departure from the traditionally inflexible materials, such as fiberglass or layered materials, used for printed circuit board (PCB) substrates. New materials can stretch without distending the electronics. The “hybrid” refers to a combination of printed and placed components. However, electronics have been hybrid for a while; machines can print some circuit components directly on harder boards. Electronics manufacturers still rely partly on laborers to place individual CMOS-based components, such as the processor, on the circuit. The new materials involve conductive and active inks, printable using new precision machines.

As of 2015, companies began producing FHEs commercially, primarily for mainstream, personal use. Ralph Lauren famously used FHE technology to make limited-edition parkas for US Olympians. The jackets used silver carbon inks with conductive properties that functioned as printed electronic heaters, keeping the athletes warm. Another consumer-oriented company, L’Oreal, has used the technology to make skin-friendly sensors that monitor UV ray absorption. FHEs can be helpful for aerodynamic objects, soft products, smooth surfaces and organic entities.

FHEs Increase Automation

The imminent value of FHEs lies in sensor technology, an essential part of IIoT and automation systems. They are used to enhance displays, lighting systems and packaging labels in cold-chain logistics. Because of their forgiving, accessible nature, sensors and other tools made with FHEs can close the gap on monitoring and control.

For example, GE uses Aerosole Jet technology to print electronic sensors directly onto turbine blades in their jet engines. Because of the precision shape of the blades and the need for aerodynamic construction, the turbines cannot be monitored with traditional chipsets or electronics. These printed sensors conform to the blades and relay data about service needs, saving the company millions of dollars.

Other FHEs contain chipsets and antennas that allow them to communicate with cloud computing systems, an essential need for manufacturing and automation. Data can be monitored and acted upon in near real time. For example, an FHE could be placed in a machine that typically requires supervision, due to the catastrophic nature of a failure. The machine could operate now with a precision eye tracking it throughout the process, and maintenance can be scheduled automatically via cloud analytics. The unskilled supervisory position can be turned into a skilled cobotics position as the employee coordinates the digital care of the machines.

Healthcare FHEs have also been used to automate and streamline the medical care process. Patients can be tagged with biosensors, like flexible glucose monitors, or other vital life data. As the sensors relay data to the hospitals cloud systems, AI programs can predict life-threatening circumstances. Rather than overworking the already short healthcare workforce, this could optimize rounding and reduce emergencies caused by negligence. In the future, emergency response teams could even carry portable FHE printers, dispensing biomedical devices in triage.

The Future of FHEs

Although FHEs have spurred on exciting research, the technology still has many years of development. The electronic structures in most FHEs are simple, relative to traditional devices, which means their applications will not be upending the current electronics model. Where they are now, however, serves as a great starting point for getting devices connected that have been neglected until now.